Cassini’s Grand Finale

After nearly 20 years in space and a final series of dives through Saturn’s ring, the spacecraft Cassini is on its last descent. It will crash into the planet later today, ending an incredible scientific mission to an amazing place.

Cassini and its instruments helped investigate Saturn’s atmosphere, its rocky rings, its strange polar hexagon. It also expanded our knowledge of Saturn’s moons, from the geysers and hidden oceans of Enceladus to the rocks and lakes on the surface of Titan. Cassini’s Huygens probe, which landed on Titan, was the furthest space landing of anything humanity has built.

Originally launched in 1997, Cassini’s mission was supposed to end in 2008. But it received two major mission extensions, nearly doubling its lifetime. It has sent 635 gigabytes of data back, which mightn’t sound like a lot except that all of it was on 1997 era technology, through a billion kilometers of space.

The spacecraft is being crashed into Saturn because it’s running out of fuel for orbital maneuvers, and scientists don’t want to risk accidentally crashing it into one of Saturn’s moons which might contain life, and contaminating them. I feel personally invested in Cassini’s mission and final resting place, because my signature is on board! When I was growing up, one of my Girl Scout troop leaders was an astrophysicist working on the Cassini Plasma Spectrometer before the spacecraft was launched. She arranged for us to all come in and get to see some of the instruments, and in the end our signatures were all added to the 600,000 signatures on the disc of human culture that was included with the spacecraft. This disc, modeled on the Golden Record aboard Voyager, is a time capsule of human culture for other spacefaring civilizations to find. But while the Voyager discs are traveling beyond our solar system, Cassini will be meeting its end here, to become part of the planet it studied.

Cassini’s voyage has been such an inspiration, a feat of technical and scientific exploration which I, along with millions of others, have loved watching from here on Earth.

You can read much more about Cassini’s scientific discoveries here, and watch Cassini’s final descent today starting at 7AM EDT here, on the NASA livestream. Godspeed, Cassini.

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Science Shouldn’t Stop at the Border

I’m a physicist and a science communicator, and I’ve had a lot of unique experiences in my life as a result of those passions. But I never expected to be detained at UK border control for three hours, and eventually denied entry and sent back to Ireland, just for doing science communication.

You see, although I have lived and worked in Ireland for the last 6 years, I have an American passport and no special privileges in any other part of Europe. And I have been all over Europe as part of my job in Ireland: to attend research conferences, be hosted as a visiting researcher in another lab, speak on panels, and give public lectures and science comedy performances as to engage the public with science. I came to Europe as a postdoctoral researcher and am now a lecturer at NUI Galway, running my own research lab and a plethora of public engagement events like Bright Club and Soapbox Science in Ireland.

But when I showed up in Cardiff to do a science comedy show as part of a festival, I was stopped at the border. I was not going to be paid for my performance, and had paid for my own travel out of pocket. However the border agents considered the festival ticket and parking pass that I had received (for an event I was to speak at) as a form of ‘payment in kind’. This is equivalent to saying that invited speakers at a conference are paid if their conference registration is covered, and nothing I (or the festival organisers who were phoned) could say convinced them otherwise. Throughout this process I was left alone for long stretches, told not to use my phone, and all my travel documents (from both the US and Ireland) were taken off me. It’s a process that is designed to make you feel powerless, and it works. Finally I was fingerprinted and photographed, served with refusal paperwork, and sent back to Ireland. There is now a black mark in my passport indicating I was refused entry to the UK.

This is especially ironic given my next planned trip to the UK will be to collect the Mary Somerville Prize from the Institute of Physics, a significant public engagement award which I am honoured to receive for my efforts to communicate science to the public. And yet apparently I am not allowed to do public engagement activities, not just for free but at my own expense, in the UK.

Jessamyn at the March for Science Ireland, holding a sign that says Science Is For Everyone.

Me at the March for Science Ireland in April 2017.

Mobility is a critical issue for physicists. We may need to travel for a conference, to visit collaborators, or even to move abroad to start a new career stage. Recent political developments such as Brexit and the Muslim travel ban in the US have been rightly criticized by researchers around the world for failing to account for how necessary the free movement of people is to science today. Early career researchers who can’t obtain travel visas easily are at a heavy career disadvantage. This is why mobility was a core issue of the recent March for Science.

To me, this is also indicative of how toxic our conversations about immigration in general have become. The border patrol officers I dealt with were as kind as they could be to me, but they were tasked with enforcing a system where all immigration is considered negative. Never mind that immigrants are often young, hard-working, and full of ambition. Never mind that immigrants drive social change, spark innovation, bring new perspectives, and in fact draw less on social safety nets than citizens do (both because of their demographics and often because they aren’t allowed to). Never mind that in science, many researchers move internationally, often multiple times, and in fact a huge number of Nobel Laureates are immigrants themselves. The narrative we hear about immigration often seems to have a Schrödinger’s Cat quality to it: immigrants as lazy welfare cheats, who are also stealing our jobs.

We should respect just how much immigrants contribute, scientifically and otherwise, to the countries they have chosen to call home. I hate that this disrespect starts at a very early stage: the recent story of the Afghan girls’ robotics team who were initially denied entry to the US for a robotics competition is heartbreaking. I was glad to see the decision reversed, as setbacks to girls in science and engineering are plentiful enough already.

I’m an immigrant, a physicist, and a science communicator, and I’m working hard to make the world a better place. Ireland has been welcoming, for me at least, so I’m doing a lot of that work here. But if other countries want talented young people to come enrich their societies, they should actually make that possible. Otherwise we’ll go somewhere else.

Crossposted at the Institute of Physics blog here.

Let Me Sing Your Thesis

I spend a lot of time thinking about new ways to communicate science. One of my favourite recent approaches combines science with musical improv, a thing I love dearly. This video from Bright Club Dublin shows me telling a few science jokes and then improvising a song about theses written by a few audience members. Increasing thesis citations, one verse at a time.

I did the same thing later at Bright Club Galway, but it lasts a lot longer because it took me an embarrassingly long time to understand one of the audience member’s thesis titles… to the great amusement of the rest of the crowd.

Unanchored

Often it’s the natural world that provides us with our first taste of science. As children we are natural explorers and investigators, trying to understand: what is that mountain made from? Why is the sky blue? What are flowers for? What do bees do? What are the stars in the sky?

This curiosity can often carry over into adulthood, even if we aren’t scientists, even if we don’t spend much time outside. I recently went on a hike with a geologist and a botanist, and I must have sounded like a child myself: why are the rocks cracked this way? What’s this flower? How were these mountains formed? And when I was in the Arctic, I noticed there too that the ecologists, the natural scientists were very popular, subject to an endless litany of questions about what we were seeing, about what it meant.

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Initially science is quite exciting, as it seems to have all the answers. But the natural world is complex, full of interconnected cycles and systems, and we are still actively discovering the ways in which weather, animal populations, plant habitats, and so many other things all depend on each other. We can watch ecological cycles, and see how they change, and look back in time to see how they have changed in the past.

And from that, we understand that we are changing our planet irrevocably.

In the Arctic, we could see the glaciers receding and the sea ice which shrinks further and further each year, thanks to the warming that our CO2 emissions have caused. The Arctic is warming faster than any region on the planet, with strong ramifications for global circulation patterns and warming and acidification of the oceans. This warming will also affect ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica, triggering sea level rise and more extreme weather like floods, heat waves, and droughts which endanger the global food supply. While climate scientists are still working to understand the full depths of the changes the Anthropocene era of human activity has brought, what is clear is that the planet is warming, the oceans are becoming acidic, and the consequences are likely catastrophic.

For a long time, the natural world has been viewed as an endless bounty. Full of wildlife and vast resources, so much grander than we humans that the idea of changing or depleting nature seemed ridiculous. But humanity has a different perspective now. We have been to space, and seen the pale blue dot that contains all of civilization, floating alone in the void. And we have seen that Earth’s resources are finite, that we cannot extract fuels or minerals indefinitely, that we cannot kill off massive numbers of animals and expect them to magically come back next year.

In the Arctic, we visited an old whaling station, where so many beluga whales had been killed in the 1930s that the beach was littered with bones. Whaling, which was intensive and economically important for a long time, is now heavily controlled after many whale populations were driven nearly to extinction. We saw what we were doing to the planet, and we acted across national boundaries to protect our shared resources. Whaling quotas and bans are now strictly enforced, with the result that many whale populations are beginning to rebound. However, it has taken decades.

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Global action on climate change has not been as straightforward to implement. Different countries have different CO2 emissions profiles, and will be affected to varying degrees by global warming. Economic interests mean that many countries (and industries) are hesitant to take the first step, and even seemingly promising developments like the Paris accord are subject to the whims of unreliable governments who may decide that the next four years are more important than the next four hundred years.

We must fight this. Individual actions, like reducing your carbon footprint by examining how you travel, what you eat, and where you live, are a necessary and important start. However, they will not be sufficient when the economic and political situation still favors carbon emission, subsidizing fossil fuels, and spending toward entrenched lobbying interests rather than the public good of all people on our precious planet. Systemic change is needed, and realistically we are already too late to be able to stop climate change. What we can do now is act to minimize its damage.

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At the northernmost point we reached in the Arctic, nearly 80°N, we anchored our ship to an ice floe. The ice floe was only somewhat larger than the ship, and yet once we were attached to it, it felt like we were completely stationary. The sea stood all around us, the mountains and glaciers in the distance, and it seemed as if we had our feet planted firmly at the top of the world.

And yet, by tracking the ship on a map we could see that we had actually drifted several miles, attached to the ice, without feeling a thing! It is difficult to comprehend sometimes, that disconnect between what you perceive and the reality of things. And yet we know what we are seeing when we look at our warming planet, our melting world, and the science is telling us what it means. Humanity is anchored to this planet, and we too are drifting. We must open our eyes and act, if we hope to have any say in where we end up.

Stop doing evaluation!

Anybody who has even dipped a toe into the waters of public engagement recently will know what I mean when I talk about the dreaded ‘i’ word.

Impact.

It seems to be everywhere – in funding applications, at conferences, even (for those of us fortunate to work in higher education) in the REF case studies. Impact is the word of the day, and proving that you have it is everybody’s goal. After all, why fund something that isn’t having an appreciable effect? Why spend time and resources embedding something into your practice if it isn’t going to change hearts and minds?

The problem, of course, is how to measure this. Evaluation is impact’s much talked-about but highly misunderstood little sibling. Sure, we need to evaluate our projects, but not just any evaluation will do. This is why I have massively stepped back the evaluation I do of my programmes, all but eliminating the usual gamut of questionnaires and surveys that used to be a must-have for any robust initiative.

Performance Evaluation Form Feedback

Think about it this way: have you ever ever gotten a truly surprising answer to ‘did you enjoy this activity/event/project?’ Most people will have done, a few people didn’t, and that tells you… precisely nothing. Sure, if you’re developing something particularly new or experimental it might be worth checking if your audience enjoyed it, but nine times out of ten you’ll be able to tell how enjoyable something was without asking.

Same with ‘did you learn anything today?’ The facts and figures people might be able to recall and parrot back five minutes after finishing your event are all but worthless in measuring whether you had a real impact on their knowledge. I can memorise a phone number that I need to call – that doesn’t mean I learned it or that I’ll remember it tomorrow, much less in a year’s time.

True evaluation of impact is going to take a lot more effort and a lot more care than what we’re used to. We need to look at long-term changes, all the while understanding the many complex and intersecting factors at play when it comes to affecting people’s attitudes about science. Groups like the British Science Association and Wellcome have started undertaking studies into longer-term impact of STEM projects, among other things, but it will still be many years before we have the data we need to know what makes a good, impactful project.

Despite the click-baity title this isn’t a call to stop all evaluation ever. But think about the questions you’re asking and what they’re telling you. Are they really informing best practice and proving impact, or are they just a waste of your audience’s time – and yours?

So: what questions are worth asking, and what impact should we be aiming for? That will be the subject of future blogs but I invite you to continue the discussion below!

Art and Science in the Arctic

I just returned from two weeks aboard a sailing ship filled with artists and scientists. Your first question might be, why?

I heard about the Arctic Circle residency program during a transitional time in my life. I was weeks from unemployment and had been applying for jobs for several months already, and I didn’t really know what was coming next for me. I had been living in Ireland for more than four years and I loved it, but was it better to stay or to go back to the US? And I loved my work as a nanoscience researcher, but I had also become very active in science communication and various forms of public engagement, so would I be better off making a career transition? Was it possible to live in a way that I could do everything I loved doing, or would I have to pick and choose?

In the midst of all of this, the idea of a science/art experience, aboard a ship in the Arctic, was like a dream. Not a research expedition, not a creative hermitage, or perhaps both of those things and more. True interdisciplinarity, in a creative and inspiring environment.

And what an environment! I love the wilderness, the mountains and the sea, but the Arctic has long held a special fascination for me. It’s such a stark environment: brutal and yet full of life and beauty too. The stories of Scott, Amundsen, Nansen, and Shackleton are inspiring and terrifying in equal measure. While I have no desire to freeze to death, I wanted to see the edge of the world, to listen to nature and search for humanity.

So I wrote to the Arctic Circle, talked about projects I could do on board as well as my history of science communication and science/art collaborations. I was delighted to be selected for a 2017 expedition, to take place over the summer solstice during the season where the sun never sets. It was somewhat strange to have 15 months to think about and prepare for such an incredible journey, and in the meantime I got a new job, moved to a new city in Ireland, and came to a very different place than I was in when I first seriously thought about going to the Arctic.

I’ll be writing more about the trip, which one of the other participants pointed out was like an iceberg: the part that’s visible, the trip itself, is only a small fraction of the total. It was amazing but will take a long time to process and sort through. But to start out, I did some vlogs (a first for me so they are pretty raw), and you can watch the first one, from the day we set out, here:

Know the rules so you can break them

Whenever you get up to speak in public, the audience has certain expectations about what you are going to say and how you’re going to say it, based on context: where you are, what you look like, who the audience themselves are. This is perfectly satirized in this meta-TED talk:

Everything about the TED format is pointed out and executed perfectly. It’s almost difficult to watch TED talks after watching this talk, because so many of them are cast from the same mold. It reminded me too of this classic example of a meta-academic talk:

There is only one word in this talk. And yet the tone of voice, the graphs and bullet points, and the story arc of it are all clear and very familiar if you’ve ever sat through a research talk. (This is also a common improv game of scenes done in gibberish, which shows you don’t need words to tell a story.) In both cases, the speakers are showing that the performance element of their talks, the delivery (from vocal inflection to props to body language) can be completely divorced from content. Delivering material in a certain style tells the audience what to expect.

This is as true in comedy as it is in academia. Experienced comics will tell you that you can write a brilliant joke but if you don’t say it in a way that tells the audience to laugh, or if you talk right through them as they laugh, it won’t land. There’s a style of presentation in standup comedy, outside of actual humorous content, that tells the audience what they can expect.

At a first pass, if you’re looking to give a good talk, or tell a good joke, or communicate basically anything to any audience, it helps to be aware of the norms around how material is delivered. Basic storytelling and conversational tools are important too, of course.

But I think these rules are also made to be broken. Going outside the norm when you’re giving an academic talk projects confidence and mastery. Well crafted comedy can be used to discuss tough real-world subjects in memorable ways. Taking tips from performers on timing, stagecraft, and the many ways an idea can be explored helps you to not only understand the expectations of an audience, but also to surpass them and create something new.